Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Review of Robert Tyler’s Death; or Medorus’ Dream, from Graham’s Magazine, December 1843, pp. 319-320.


[page 319, column 2, continued:]

Death; or Medorus’ Dream. By the Author of “Ahasuerus.” Harper & Brothers, New York.

It has always been sufficiently well understood that “The Author of Ahasuerus” is Mr. Robert Tyler, the son of the President; and this understanding, while it has given currency to his poems, has stood very much in the way of a fair appreciation of the poet. By the enemies of the administration, the announcement of “Ahasuerus” was the signal, we are really ashamed to say, for every variety of prospective squib, and, by its friends, we are also very much ashamed to say, for every variety of prospective puff. When published, the poem, almost as a matter of course, was extravagantly lauded by the one party, and outrageously condemned by the other; and, so far as our own knowledge extends, there was really no attempt at purely literary criticism in the case. This, the author himself could not have failed to see; and it must have been to him a source of no ordinary regret that the circumstances of his political, rendered it impossible that he should obtain, in America at least, a distinct view of his poetical, position. For ourselves, in the few words we have to say, we profess an absolute impartiality; but, as similar professions have been made, either directly or indirectly, by nearly all who have preceded us upon this topic, we can scarcely expect to be believed on the ground of the simple profession. Thus it shall be our endeavor to make our comments speak for themselves; our sole purpose being to present an intelligible view of the book — that is to say, of “Medorus’ Dream;” for the time has gone by when a criticism upon “Ahasuerus” might come with propriety, under the heading of our “Review of New Books.”

“Death, or Medorus’ Dream,” then, is an irregular poem, chiefly iambic, and consisting of some twelve hundred lines. It is divided into three parts — with no very ostensible reason for the division. The theme may be thus stated: — Medorus, a misanthrope, deeply imbued with a sense of the horrors of the grave, laments the sad destiny of Man, in being subjected to Death. While thus lamenting, FANCY descends to his aid, and consoles him by opening to his view the mysteries of Knowledge and of Love. She instructs him that the Death so dreaded is but a mode of progress from lesser to greater capacities of enjoyment and of power, until the soul finally returns to its August source in the Godhead itself. Medorus, in awaking from his dream, finds that the terror of Death is dispelled.

These allegorical subjects are faulty in themselves, and it is high time they were discarded. The best allegory is a silly conceit, so far as the allegory itself is concerned, and is only tolerable when so subjected to an upper current [page 320:] of obvious or natural meaning, that the moral may be dispensed with at pleasure — the poem being still good, per se, when the moral, or allegory, is neglected. When this latter is made to form an under-current — that is to say when an occasionally suggested meaning arises from the obvious one — then, and then only, will a true taste endure the allegorical. It can never properly be made the main thesis. In the present instance, however, it is not only so made, but handled in the crudest, most inartificial, and most commonplace manner. And this, too, for no purpose — with no object, since the end desired would have been equally, and far more naturally attained by the machinery of an ordinary dream. The only apology which can be suggested is, that the poem is intended rather less as a poem than as a philosophical essay in verse; but, then, there should be no such anomalies as philosophical essays in verse.

Apart from this leading error, the chief defects of “Medorus’ Dream” are to be found in an unpleasant “fatfetchedness” of versification, in confusion of metaphor, and in a too frequent introduction of epithet.

Of the general character of the versification, the lines annexed will convey an idea:

The light of Knowledge and of happy Love.

The one appears like some bright dawn that pours

Its streaming tide

Into the realms of Darkness and arrays

Each cloud in gold,

While in effulgence shines each fragrant world.

The other, like those warm and rosy rays

That sunset leaves,

When all along you fleeting mists that wing

Their silent way

Through evening’s twilight dome

There seems a presence of Divinity,

As though a group of angels hovered near,

Or God’s sweet smile

Was lingering in the sky.

These are merely iambic lines, unrhymed, and varying in length from four to six and ten syllables — that is to say, from two to three and five feet. The effect in general has nothing beyond its oddity to recommend it. Occasionally, however, it assumes much force; as, for example, here:

’T was not the wavy outline of the form

As, flexible on the bosom of the air,

It lay instinct with grace;

’T was not the eye lit up with beams of love

Bright as unclouded day;

‘T was not the wing that veil’d his peaceful breast,

White as unsullied snow;

But ‘t was a truth and innocence of thought,

An angel-gift of stainless purity,

That had our worship won.

Nevertheless, we should have been better pleased with something in the way of rhyme; and, in fact, there is no metre which may not derive vigor from its employment. The Heroic, or Iambic Pentameter, can best dispense with it; but we know no instance, even of this stately rhythm, which would not be improved, even in its distinctive feature of stateliness, by the admission of well-managed rhyme.

In respect to the point of “confusion of metaphor,” Mr. Tyler is far more objectionable than in his metre. For example:

If but the fire of sacred truth could touch

His stagnant heart,

And melt the chains that curb its swelling tide,

Then would he know, &c.

Here we have fire touching a stagnant heart, and, in this way, melting certain chains that curb its swelling tide — that is, the swelling tide of a stagnant heart. Observe! — first we have the idea of fire applied to water, (conveyed by the term “stagnant”) this is one incongruity; then we have chains curbing a tide, a second incongruity; then we [column 2:] have the third incongruity of the “stagnant” heart’s possessing a “swelling tide.” Mixed metaphors like these abound in the poem.

As for the third count of our indictment — the excessive use of epithets — the opening passage of “Medorus’ Dream” will afford us a good exemplification:

How sad the wan and melancholy hour,

When wintry night creeps o’r the dark’ning sky,

while the dull whisper of the gathering gale

Strikes like an omen on the shuddering soul!

So Death, with his chill breath and bony hand,

Pressed on the sinking heart, from our dim sense

Shuts out the fading world, until the Tomb

With its dread shadows steals upon the scene,

Where Hope lies buried in sepulchral gloom,

And Joy shall be no more.

The ill effect of these frequent adjectives is heightened, here, by the similarity of those used at the termination of the second, third, and fourth lines, where we have a [[“]]darkening sky,” a “gathering gale,” and a “shuddering soul.”

These, we say, are the chief defects of the poem, and they are defects of a minor kind. The merits are, first, a certain nobility and dignity of tone pervading every page, and betokening lofty aspiration and chivalry of heart in the poet; secondly, a rich and imaginative sense of the beautiful, with a capacity for its expression. Of course, it is only by a perusal of the whole poem that the reader can be made to feel the first of these merits; but, without instancing at this point, we may be permitted to say that the general philosophy of “Death,” as well as of “Ahasuerus” is, if not in all cases logical, still, at all times, noble, elevated, thoughtful, and worthy of the highest respect.

We conclude this notice with an extract which will go far to exemplify our allusion to the poet’s “sense of the beautiful,” and his “capacity for its expression:”

Behold a fresh and oval-fashioned Dale,

Deep bosomed in the midst of rising hills,

Through all the wide-extended landscape swelling,

While on their verdant sides a woodland screen

Reaches the fair horizon.

No mortal footstep yet hath ever passed

Its myrtle-guarded walls.

No moral hand hath ever yet profaned

Its many-tinted flowers.

Such as the wild enthusiast’s soul hath viewed

In Morning’s formful sleep,

Such as a poet’s eager eye hath seen

In youth’s inspiring hour,

While sitting on the smooth and pebbly beach

Of some sun-glowing sea,

Or gazing on the white-winged clouds of Noon

From some enshaded glen:

Such to Medorus’ happy vision seemed

This star-lit vale.

The turf lay thick and green,

Close matted in its mossy woof,

Upon the genial soil,

Save where sweet beds of flowers

Gaze upward on the stars,

Whose odors rich, from where they lie,

With gentle arms

Enwreathed about each other’s forms,

Intoxicate the sense with a delight

As blissful as their fragrance.

The red Rose, blushing in its virgin pride,

Hangs lightly on its green and briery stalk,

And kisses from its pale-cheeked sister’s brow,

With trembling lip, the pearly tear away;

Here Violets, that spring by stealth at night,

Of rarer scents and sweeter shapes than those

Plucked by the village maiden in the vale,

Ere yet the sun hath touched their dewy leaves,

Mingle their balmiest odors and their hues

With the soft-nectared sighs

Of wind-flowers, pansies, hyacinths, oxlips,

And sun-striped tulips tall,

Until the freighted airs themselves grow faint,

And on their weary way sink down to sleep

Among the sleepless flowers!



This item was first attributed to Poe by William Doyle Hull, in 1941. It is the second of two items in the “Review of New Books” for this issue. The first item is a review of Samuel Rogers’ Poems. Although it is unsigned, that review is by Henry Theodore Tuckerman, and is reprinted in full in Thoughts on the Poets (New York: Francis, 1846, pp. 183-192).


[S:0 - GM, 1843] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Death or Medorus's Dream [Text-02]